Cameron Logan writes

There was an interesting piece published in the Melbourne Age earlier this month (01/04/2012) profiling the newly amalgamated Dandenong High School. The  new buildings for the school were designed by Hayball architects, who are responsible for the design of most of the Victorian primary school buildings funded and built under the Australian government’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) economic stimulus program. While the BER projects generally added a single building to existing campuses, the Dandenong High School amalgamation project includes seven new buildings grouped around what has been described as an agora.

Ben Cleavland and his colleagues on the Smart Green Schools research project, based in the Faculty of Architecture Building and planning at the University of Melbourne, have observed the project closely, highlighting innovations in sustainable systems, construction and learning spaces. They dedicated a session to the school at a project symposium back in 2009. To hear from the designers and the school principal follow this link.

What’s most interesting about this project from my perspective is the way in which it incorporates educational reform ideas alongside more traditional school concepts. The large amalgamated school of over 2000 students is divided into seven houses. Like the traditional house system, the aim here is to encourage sporting and other competition and also to foster personal connections across year level groupings and between students and staff. While the house system in English boarding schools was based on actual residential houses, at day schools ‘house’ groupings have generally been uncoupled from any physical spaces. But at Dandenong the houses are defined physically, by the seven new buildings or ‘learning centres’.

Within these seven ‘houses’ the learning areas also combine new thinking about teaching and learning with more traditional formats. Each building contains two orthogonally planned, ‘traditional’ classrooms.  But wide circulation spaces within the new buildings contain computers and  are utilised for inquiry-oriented learning. Like the break-out areas of earlier cluster school planning concepts, these areas represent an attempt to open up ways of thinking about  learning that does not rely on the transmission of information from teacher to student. To read more about the ambition of this organisational strategy see this profile and a review of the school in Australian Design Review.

Not all the ideas being explored by Hayball are especially novel, but the level of engagement with the client seems to have been quite exceptional. It is unclear if such a robust consultation process will be the norm for future school projects in the Victorian public system. In the past – for example in the NSW government schools in the 1960s –  a short period of innovation and careful client engagement has been followed by a period in which the Education Department treats the problem of school design as a closed book, a problem solved. Given this history, it seems likely that the Dandenong High School will be treated as a prototype. But only in a limited way. It is the architectural product, more than the process of design, that will provide a model. This is a shame for architects, educators,  and for the state education systems in Australia generally, especially in a period when Australian private schools have become some of the most conspicuous consumers of advanced architectural design.